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High hopes for Qingdao gem Hansen

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-12-22 09:08
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Highly touted CBA rookie Yang Hansen has averaged 16.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.8 blocks in 19 games for the Qingdao Eagles this season. OSPORTS/XINHUA

NBA scouts circling as teenager impresses in rookie season to earn comparisons to superstar Jokic

An 18-year-old 7-footer wearing No 15 who runs plays like Nikola Jokic? It's little wonder the basketball world is watching.

The player in question is Yang Hansen, a versatile rookie center of the Qingdao Eagles, who just 19 games into his first CBA season is being touted as a possible NBA prospect.

Standing 2.18 meters tall and with a strong build similar to two-time NBA MVP Jokic, Yang is far from the finished product yet, but the way he affects the game on both ends of the floor is also drawing comparisons to the Denver Nuggets' Serbian superstar.

Equipped with a diverse skill set that features smooth footwork, shooting touch, passing, rebounding and rim protection, Yang has averaged 16.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.8 blocks in 19 games this season to help the previously underachieving Eagles rise to seventh place in the 20-team regular-season CBA standings.

Having emerged as China's next big thing, expectations are inevitably rising that Yang could follow in the sizable footsteps of Yao Ming in the NBA.

Yang, though, commands the court in a different style to Yao's traditional center role. The teen prodigy tends to take over offense in a high-post position, driving into the paint to attack or dishing out to teammates, similar to how Jokic dominates the NBA as the "point center" of the modern game.

Averaging 36.2 minutes per game, Yang's 4.2 assists ranks second for the Eagles behind American guard Myles Powell (6.6). Yang also tops the league in blocks while tying Tianjin Pioneers center David Scott James at the top of the league's rebound ranking.

Keen to form a deeper assessment beyond the stats, multiple NBA club scouts have been in attendance at Eagles games this month to watch Yang in action up close.

Among them was Kevin Connelly, a younger brother of Tim Connelly, the Minnesota Timberwolves' president of basketball operations.

"He has impressive skills and has a good feel for the game. He's a confident young player so it's good to see him in person. It's very impressive at this young age to do what he does on this stage," Connelly said after watching Yang score 26 points and grab 12 rebounds in Qingdao's 104-84 defeat to the Shenzhen Leopards on Dec 9.

"I think he has a chance (to be drafted into the NBA). I think his big issue, in my opinion, will be his mobility ... and his physical attributes. He doesn't really run the floor extremely well ... but I think his IQ might be able to carry him over the top."

With the CBA resuming its 2023-24 regular season at the beginning of December following a break, more and more NBA scouts and executives have arrived in China to check on Yang, including Portland Trail Blazers' assistant GM Mike Schmitz and Eugene Park, the senior director of the NBA's international basketball operations, according to Beijing Youth Daily.

Qingdao head coach Liu Weiwei, however, is fearful the hype has already spiraled out of control.

"Yang of course has vast room to grow and a lot of potential to fulfill," said Liu, who's been focusing on youth development since taking over the Eagles before the 2022-23 season.

"But with all the conversations around him and people talking about his NBA future, I don't think that's healthy for his development.

"What he needs the most at the moment is to learn his weaknesses and try to improve by focusing on each and every game in the CBA without caring too much about what's in the future.

"I hope we can all calm down and let him play without too much distraction."

As noted by Connelly, Yang's lack of mobility and physical strength risk being exposed against strong and experienced opponents, such as Shandong Heroes' former national team center Tao Hanlin, who forced Yang to foul out in a 104-94 road win for Qingdao on Wednesday.

Tao's bulk in the paint and aggressive post play held Yang to only nine points and five rebounds when he was called for his sixth foul early in the fourth quarter to leave the court with six turnovers.

Yang's average of 3.6 turnovers is the second highest in the league after Zhejiang Lions' guard Sun Minghui (3.9), while his 62 percent free-throw figure falls well behind China's traditional sharp-shooting big guys.

"I need to grow stronger and improve my shooting consistency in contact," Yang admitted. "I will take one step at a time though. I won't rush my development, and I won't focus on anything else other than the current league games."

Developed in Qingdao's youth system, Yang first shot to attention on the international stage when he led China to a third-place finish at the FIBA U18 Asian Championship in 2022. He then tallied 12.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and a tournament-leading 5 blocks at the U19 World Cup in Hungary, where he was named on the youth tourney's All-Second Team.

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